The trouble with visas

Before international artists can hit the Philly stage, they face US immigration

7 minute read
Ma, a Chinese woman in flowing blue & pink traditional garb poses smiling with a blue fan above her head outside City Hall.

In January 2023, the Dutch dancer-choreographer Arno Schuitemaker’s appearance at Penn Live Arts was cancelled due to visa issues. Penn Live Arts declined an interview, citing confidentiality, but they were not the only organization dealing with the visa tangle.

Philadelphia Ballet general manager Christine Stone Martin said that it took much longer to process visas at the height of the pandemic and, before vaccines were widely available, travel bans kept some dancers from returning to the United States at all. But in 2018, well before the pandemic, visa delays meant that Dutch choreographer Wubkje Kuindersma had to create most of her piece for BalletX via Zoom. FringeArts hasn’t sponsored a visa since 2019. So it isn’t a new problem.

Are you an O or a P?

Artists need work visas from the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS)—for jobs the government usually wants to fill with American citizens. If you are an arts worker, the company or presenting organization has to petition USCIS as a sponsor, showing documentation that they need you for your skills, along with proof that they are hiring you.

BalletX learned its lesson with Kuindersma. According to associate director of operations Megan O’Donnell, the company begins the visa application process for international artists eight to 12 months in advance and pays for expedited approval—an extra $2,500 on top of application fees and legal costs. Most of the artists they commission have O1 visas, designated for artists of extraordinary ability. O’Donnell collects the evidence—resumes, press clippings, programs and brochures that mention the artists, and three letters of support—and sends it to their immigration attorney to complete the submission.

Kanneh-Mason, a Black man, plays the cello, smiling at conductor Nézet-Séguin, the orchestra around them on the Kimmel stage
British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays with Philadelphia Orchestra. (Photo by Jeff Fusco, courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra.)

Philadelphia Ballet usually starts four to six months ahead. “We can do a group visa,” Martin said, “which is great. We can put as many dancers as possible on the P1.” A P1 petition, for a company member, has to be renewed every year, but once a dancer has press coverage and they’ve danced more leading roles, the company applies for a coveted O1 visa. “The old joke used to be, how much does your visa packet weigh. This one is only two inches!”

The artist and the embassy

The next step is up to the artist. The sponsoring organization sends them the approval notice (I-797, if you are keeping score) in their home country for an interview at an American embassy. This is where catastrophe can strike: understaffed and overwhelmed embassies may take up to a year for a scheduled appointment, well past the season or guest commission. The company can provide a letter requesting an emergency appointment, but according to Martin, “sometimes, embassies deny the request or don’t answer at all.” Artists have to get creative then, checking embassy websites for cancellations and, when all else fails, traveling to an embassy with more appointments available. BalletX commissioned composer Rosie Langabeer to do a piece, but New Zealand, where Langabeer lives, had very long wait times. She traveled to Canada for an earlier appointment.

When is a year not a year?

Artists’ visas have a maximum period of one year for a P1 and three years for an O1, but Martin explained that actually, “the dates for their visa are based upon their contractual work with the organization.” At the end of the contract, they return to their home countries and await a new contract. Artists from some countries have even more limited options. Martin said that resident choreographer Juliano Nuñes’s petition was approved for three years, but because he is Brazilian, his visa was for just a few months: “Juliano was coming and going every year. The frustration for him is that he has to get an interview every single time he comes into the country.”

Nuñes, a Latino man, sweaty and intent with hands on hips, watches three rehearsing dancers in a joint pose.
Brazilian choreographer Juliano Nuñes, watching at right, in the rehearsal studio with artists of Philadelphia Ballet. (Photo by Arian Molina Soca.)

Tanya Derksen, chief artistic production officer for Philadelphia Orchestra, said that their international musicians are all on O1 visas, which generally allow for artists to travel back and forth throughout the visa period, but during the pandemic, visas were issued for one entry only. So a newly hired musician “either had to stay here, and choose to not leave or, if he left, then we had to go through the whole process all over again.”

Finding a way for the less well-funded

The process is difficult even for organizations with strong financial and administrative support. For smaller companies with less funding, it is daunting. As a company founded by an immigrant, the Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers (KYL/D) mission includes supporting international performers, but it’s expensive. Executive director Katie Moore-Derkits said, “We don’t have capacity to directly hire international candidates and immediately process and support their visa applications.” Instead, the company will sponsor the renewal process for a dancer who already has a visa. For example, assistant artistic director Lingyuan (Maggie) Zhao joined the company as a dancer in her optional practice training year, still under her F1 student visa.

Small companies face more scrutiny as well. According to Moore-Derkits, “they do ask for financial information for KYL/D, so I think they also potentially look at our budget size, and say, we are not legitimate enough because we are not showing enough revenue. If they don’t see enough activity, enough touring, they think we are less serious.”

KYL/D petitions for P3 visas, for artists performing in a culturally unique program. But in 2017, the requirements tightened. According to Zhao, suddenly the company’s renewal petition for dancer and choreographer Weiwei Ma was challenged. “We were trying to make the argument that Weiwei can bring a lot of Eastern influence to our contemporary dance company. However, a different officer who reviewed the document said, ‘OK, so this is not culturally specific.’” They fought for the visa, but it spurred them to make closer ties to the Asian community with more explicitly cultural programming.

Trouble at the border

Most artists present their paperwork at the border, answer a few questions, and Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) gives them the all-important I-94 that approves them for their length of stay. Martin said that she remembers only one problem: when the CBP officer didn’t believe the man in front of him was really a dancer. As the dancer told Martin later, “I did a pirouette, right in my sneakers. I wasn’t going to risk it.’”

Lang, a Chinese man, plays the grand piano with a flourish among smiling members of the orchestra onstage at the Kimmel.
Chinese pianist Lang Lang plays with Philadelphia Orchestra. (Photo by Jessica Griffin, courtesy of Philadelphia Orchestra.)

But sometimes, especially when the artist is not backed by a major institution, things can go very wrong. This January, Nigerian author and editor Oghenechovwe Ekpeki read from his work at the Rosenbach Museum. The press release said that he had been turned down for a visa at the US Embassy in Nigeria, but with the efforts of the literary community, the initial denial was reversed. He went home to Nigeria soon after, but returned for the NAACP Image Awards ceremony, where he was a nominee for outstanding literary award, and to attend other professional events. Like many others, I was shocked to read that CBP had stopped Ekpeki at Los Angeles International Airport, where he was detained for three days and returned to Nigeria. Ekpeki declined an interview, concerned that discussing the situation might hurt his case, but there is currently a GoFundMe campaign to pay for legal assistance and a new visa.

A global challenge

The United States is not alone in setting requirements for artists. For Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent tour, Derksen had to navigate the requirements of five different countries for both musicians and instruments. But USCIS, the office that oversees the visa process, is a part of the Department of Homeland Security; the problems we see now are entrenched in an arcane system with requirements that change at the whim of each administration. It is expensive, and costs are slated to go up again soon, threatening to triple the cost of the visa application alone. It takes too long, and then, of course, there are the human prejudices in the mix.

If you want to learn more about visas for artists, Artists from Abroad is a good place to start.

At top: Weiwei Ma, a Chinese dancer-choreographer with Philly’s Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers, poses outside Philadelphia City Hall. (Photo by Rob Li.)

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